R.E.M’s five-night stand at the Dublin Olympia back in 2007 was, let’s face it, astounding. The very fact that a band with seventy million plus album sales and a stellar worldwide following were playing such an intimate venue in the first place made it something special. Throw in a host of material that was – at the time – so new and unknown that some of it wasn’t even completely written yet, and you’ve got yourself a Stipe-lover’s paradise.
These gigs were always advertised as an -open rehearsal’, and that really comes through on the CD. On plenty of the tracks that have now evolved into latest album Accelerate (we counted eight under the same names as the 2008 album, plus an early version of -Supernatural Superserious’ entitled -Disguised’), Stipe’s so unsure of himself that he’s mumbling the words a tad incoherently. A number of the 39 tracks suffer from re-starts or mistakes, and Michael even loses his way half way through the legendary -Drive’. It would be easy to focus on these mistakes, but take the album on the whole and they seems somehow beside the point.
Live at the Olympia was never meant to be a record for the casual or recent R.E.M fan. -Drive’ (broken up briefly by Stipe replacing a couple of lines with -Oh Whoops’) and -Electrolite’ aside, much of the two discs and 39 tracks is made up of older gems, unreleased tracks, not quite ready tracks and tracks that only appear on the more obscure of R.E.M’s numerous studio albums. It might be lacking -Losing My Religion’, -Everybody Hurts’ and the like, but what Live at the Olympia does offer is a rare insight into R.E.M in playful mode, as well as a fascinating glance at how their songwriting process develops. Compare, for example, -Until the Day Is Done’ to the more polished version that eventually turned up on the album (in fact, you could pick most of the Accelerate tracks and do the same), and you’ll find that, bizarrely, this particular R.E.M album is something of an education. For that soul-exploring reason alone, their more enraptured fans are going to absolutely love it.
If you’re a stickler for unreleased material, you’ll find that, too, in the form of -Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance’ (a tuneful, infectious track on which Stipe comes alive in the chorus) and -On the Fly’ (which Michael introduces as -a beautiful song’, and he’s not wrong; it’s almost a ballad, gentle, heartfelt and seductive). Then there’s -Feel Gravity’s Pull’, plus accompanying speech and full-on, enticing, jagged guitars. -West of the Fields’ sees Peter Buck add his part to a looping round of vocals, and an as yet unperfected version of -I’m Gonna DJ’, brief and sharp, sounds like a pogo-inducing riot of a live track. -Circus Envy’, performed live for the first time in a dozen years, is another alluring rarity.
The sound itself is strikingly crisp throughout; beautifully produced and – were it not for the slightly broken, -unrehearsed’ nature of the album – not far from studio quality. Of course, the crowd, which consists largely of fan club members, is wildly enthusiastic, and R.E.M. seem unusually at ease joking about and experimenting. Which is why, if you’re the kind of obsessive R.E.M fan who might already have copies of all these songs tucked away in your mammoth collection, you should still buy it, and you’ll still love it. For anyone else, it’s an interesting insight into the -chart free’ side of R.E.M, and an undeniably impressive (if off the wall) collection of tracks. But it’s far from essential.